Naples: the creative rebirth of Italy’s edgiest city

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The city is awakening, cast in tangerine light, the morning flare caught like bodily heat between a thousand kissing buildings. On concrete and cacti flesh, love letters are scratched to all its reincarnations – Ti amo Napoli. O’ core e Napule. I love you, Neapolis, Partenope. An oil drum erupts with fuchsia blooms. On an alley sliced with sabres of sunshine, a girl throws a blessing of rice by a church where miracles are granted every Tuesday. The day begins in a playground of lost kingdoms where 27 centuries of art and civilisation, dereliction and beauty co-exist. It’s as if time has been preserved beneath the ash of defamation shrouding Naples.


Sunrise over Mount Vesuvius

Øivind Haug

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It is less city than a geothermic cauldron inhabited by three millennia of the unrepressed. I remember it in bright flashes from my first visit 23 years ago as a metropolis of the human spirit. Sheets hung on balconies like public airings of emotions; the undiluted taste of life in Piennolo tomatoes that grow on the slopes of Vesuvius; the sprawl of a thousand churches that spills uphill from the sea on top of 175 miles of Greek and Roman tunnels. It was the electrifying bolt of light in the chiaroscuros of Caravaggio, and at Naples’ height in the 18th and 19th centuries under the ruling Bourbon dynasty, it leapt in the clarion high Cs of castrato singer Farinelli at Teatro San Carlo, a glorious open mouth of red velvet and gold teeth, reviving the place as the nonpareil of western civilisation. It was here that Goethe, Mozart and other European greats relaxed like clams in the southern heat.


Villas in Posillipo

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Øivind Haug

10am on via Partenope where clipped pines bend before the bay’s blue arena: I hail a taxi, winding uphill on a hot leather seat, lemon branches scratching the roof, to the grand Museo di Capodimonte in the Bourbons’ hunting grounds. Inside, a tuxedoed pianist plays to an empty floor with six centuries of Italian paintings in ruched papal swags and stigmata, including the Flagellation of Christ, the near-naked messiah twisting violently as if in a spotlit contemporary dance. ‘This is our Louvre. But you can spend 20 minutes uninterrupted in front of every painting,’ says my friend Roberto Salomone, a local photographer. ‘Neapolitans grew up with this wonderland of high art and architecture to ourselves – and people struggle to believe we even have a culture besides Elena Ferrante or Gomorrah (the TV adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s exposé of the Mafia-style Camorra). The noble preeminence of Naples, its fall, were written out of history.’ On Italy’s unification in 1861, the Bourbon kingdom’s wealth, the greatest on the peninsula, was forcibly redistributed to the north (Neapolitans still say ‘Fuck Garibaldi’). Unable to sustain its own might, then bombed by both the Allies and the Germans, it had collapsed by the middle of the last century.

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Old door in Certosa di San Martino, a museum in a former monastery

Øivind Haug

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The bowl of Naples rotted slowly like a still life. ‘I love Naples because it reminds me of New York,’ said Andy Warhol in 1980, after taking Polaroids of its femminielli (drag queens), attracted by curator Lucio Amelio and the art scene that had grown in its graffitied alleys – at Capodimonte is his Pop Art Vesuvius, a cartoonish depiction of fire and brimstone. Demonised by the rest of Italy for an organised crime problem nationally shared, this great theatre of western civilisation was reduced to a tacky puppet show of pizzaioli and Camorra thugs. Its wonders were forgotten – at MANN, the city’s archaeological museum containing one of the largest global collections of classical antiquities, the marble giants of Atlas and Hermes stood buff and alone.


Santa Chiara courtyard

Øivind Haug

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Outside MANN now, the air is laced with the scent of oranges and optimism. The demolition of the notorious Scampia housing estates marks the end of an era that has seen crime rates declining. Bourbon palaces are corseted in scaffolding, being retouched as if for their wedding day. Contemporary gallery Madre has hatched a scene to rival the 1970s with all of Naples a stage for installations. Toledo metro station, redesigned by Oscar Tusquets Blanca, is bathed in undulating blue light reflected from floor mosaics, so commuters appear to be diving to work. Street art is actively encouraged: Banksy’s Madonna with a Pistol is ashen and puny beneath the bright, hyper-realist face of patron saint San Gennaro by Naples-born Jorit Agoch, modelled on a young Brando-esque mechanic. And to mark Naples’ future as a world-class art capital, Zaha Hadid’s Afragola train station is a shiny, clean slate.


Grand Hotel Parker’s

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Øivind Haug

The knack to chasing the local art scenes lies in letting go, allowing the aromas of jasmine and ragù to lead you off course into a game of hide-and-seek. Near Alfonso Artiaco gallery in the centro storico is Bar Nilo, where a shrine erected to Diego Maradona contains a lock of his hair. The bar’s owner, Bruno Alcidi, picked it off an airplane headrest in the 1980s (‘I’m not just the Maradona guy. I make the best coffee in Naples!’). London gallerist Thomas Dane has a space at Villa Ruffo, the apartment and gardens below still roamed by the heir of the noble Croce dynasty. The gallery owned by Lia Rumma, Seventies matriarch of Neapolitan art, is housed in her old apartment; outside girls with Cleopatra fringes chat to nonnas laden with onions. For the most captivating show in Naples is real life. This is where a new generation of B&Bs, started up in vast, forsaken apartments, takes visitors in rickety brass lifts to stairwells feathered with ferns: SuperOtium, a six-room art hotel and residency opposite MANN; Artemisia Domus in an 18th-century brothel; and The Duomo House, next to the cathedral, in a palazzo still owned by nuns. ‘They are praying for all the building,’ laughs local owner Richard Glenn Kiley. ‘We attract people who want to inhabit the crazy, beautiful personality of Naples.’

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Morning coffee at Bar Officina

Øivind Haug

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9pm near Superotium: a dinner party in the studio of artist Michele Iodice. A jumbo cherub – pony-sized and sprayed in gold – swings forth on a winch from the high ceiling opposite an evil eye painted on the far wall. ‘Florence, Venice? They’re boring,’ Isabella, a Tuscan filmmaker, tells me. ‘The creative scene here is exploding. This town has less in common with Milan than Mexico City.’


The next day I mosey around Chiaia’s antique shops, which sprout with Sixties mushroom lamps, the brass lilies of gramophones. There are vintage stores, perfumers, workshops in which credenzas are carved with fabulously stockinged calves. On via Chiaia is Palazzo Cellamare, a hothouse for stylistic revolutions from the 16th century to the jazz age, when noble Gennaro Rubinacci ripped out the lining of a suit jacket and deconstructed its shape so that it fell on rakish shoulders as weightless as 6pm sunshine. Now the word sprezzatura, the two-Negronis-down insouciance of the Neapolitan tailoring he finessed, is at the tip of fashion tongues thanks to his grandson Luca. ‘Well, I don’t say my grandfather had sprezzatura,’ he laughs, surrounded by impeccably cut, handmade loafers. ‘I say my grandfather was cool.’


Certosa di San Martino

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Øivind Haug

From the top floor of another palazzo, Alberto Squillace runs his family’s fifth-generation business Omega, hand-making gloves for Louis Vuitton and Chanel in the same 25-step process, on the same Singer machines and wooden cutting bench blackened by his grandfather’s cigarettes. He even uses the old brass Rolodex. ‘It’s actually more efficient than a smartphone,’ he tells me. There’s no lift. The gloves are lowered from the window and ferried by Sergio – ‘a mystical figure, because we never see him’ – between home-based seamstresses. ‘Naples is one of the last cities in Europe that remains hyper-local. In the backlash against globalisation we’re already ahead.’

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Of all the Neapolitan arts kept burning, the one with the greatest transformative power has been food. Even northern Italians concede the country’s best dishes are served in the steaming pan of Naples. Octopi, as lucid as brown marble, are stewed soft in tomatoey broth; parsley and pomodoro a little scandalised with chilli and anchovies. Cooking is a familial rite with restaurants passed down through blood lines, and cooking has helped regenerate working-class areas such as the Spanish District, a grid of narrow alleys off via Toledo. The white sheets on the balconies are no longer signs of surrender to the Camorra but that kitchens are open for business, strung together by cat’s cradles of bunting. One-room trattorias stand next to fishmongers with vats of eels swirling like calligraphy. ‘You can tell what day of the week it is here by the smells,’ says Roberto, as we amble around Rione Sanità. Today is Sunday: ragù simmers for six hours on stoves. In card rooms, old men slap down aces faster as lunchtime approaches.


Shopping for vegetables

Øivind Haug

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While Naples has more Michelin stars than any other Italian city, the pizza is beloved as a talisman, the daily bread of the lazzaroni (so poor they resembled Lazarus) elevated to a court delicacy. Like Italy’s greatest comic actor, Naples’ own Totò, the district of Rione Sanità was born noble near Capodimonte but was abandoned to poverty. ‘Ten years ago, this was gangster land,’ Roberto explains. ‘Now it’s a role model for Italy.’ This is due to the efforts of Antonio Loffredo, a priest who runs a boxing gym for teenagers inside the 16th-century basilica. But Sanità has another modern-day saint, not in holy robes but chef’s whites: 28-year-old Ciro Oliva, a five-foot-six whoosh of magmatic energy (his nickname is Little Volcano) who took the helm of fourth-generation pizzeria Concettina ai Tre Santi at 18. He’s been hoarse ever since from shouting orders and proselytising his neighbourhood. His reconception of the pizza, made with such vital, sulphur-fed local produce he never uses salt, has won the devotion of Massimo Bottura and other slow-foodies who make regular pilgrimages to Ciro’s tables. ‘The best way to eat my pizza? With jokes,’ he declares, handing me a spoon of ambrosial San Marzano tomato sauce. ‘Ten years ago, the only jobs for young people were with the Camorra. Now they work here.’


Dome at Gesu Nuovo church

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Øivind Haug

Outside, Italian tourists cock their heads at baroque architect Ferdinando Sanfelice’s twin palaces: one deteriorated back to the bone; the other fleshed out in the hues of mussels and figs. But the spirit of this neighbourhood, of all Naples, can never be painted over. ‘It’d take the American defence budget to gentrify this city,’ says B&B owner Glenn Kiley. It has too many unopened doors, too many mazes of possibility for the soul. Nearby is Fontanelle Cemetery, where hundreds of craniums pile up like a mass sprouting of fungi, some in jaunty country baskets. From the 16th century, families adopted an unknown skull, praying for its soul’s ascent – a practice banned by the Pope in 1969. But Neapolitans still suspect they jostle alongside ancient spirits.

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Building facade in Posillipo

Øivind Haug

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By the time I walk from the Church of Angels near the Botanical Gardens to the Church of Purgatory, I am drunk on Naples: high on its hope and human capacity. At dusk, I climb the road to the clifftop villas of Posillipo, an elite suburb since Roman times, Capri just a lazy pink cloud on the horizon. From here the greats painted that immortal view: the sunset stretching like phoenix wings over Vesuvius, rising again each dawn to remind Neapolitans of the fiery glory of being alive.

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